Seasonal Festivals Calendar of Myanmar – Part I
Visitors to Myanmar may be surprised to learn that the country has its own calendar system. Based on the moon phases, the Myanmar year begins around April and cycles through 12 months. Each month features its own festival and traditions, so it is highly likely that you will get to join in a celebration while visiting Myanmar! In this blog, we introduce the first six months of the Myanmar calendar and share our insight into the festive celebrations!
Seasonal Festivals #1: April (Tagu) – Thingyan
When: Tagu is the first month of the Myanmar calendar and Thingyan (Water Festival) marks the start of the new year. The celebration usually falls in the middle of the month.
What: Thingyan is a time to rid oneself of evil and guilt and start the new year with a clean, fresh mind and body. The festival lasts 4-5 days and many people travel to their home towns to spend this period with their loved ones.
How to enjoy: Throwing and splashing in water is symbolic of rinsing away the evils of the previous year so be prepared to get wet! Grab a squirt gun or bucket and join locals on the streets for a water battle (but be sure to have your valuables wrapped in plastic bags as you will get wet!). For a more tame Thingyan celebration, head to a pagoda or monastery to make a donation. Or release a fish or bird into the wild, a symbol gesture of forgiveness. This is also a time to pay respect to elders. Visiting a ‘Home for the Aged’ and chatting with the elderly residents is a memorable way to celebrate the start of a new year.
Thingyan is also a time of offering free food. Many traditional snacks are prepared at this time of year. Be sure to sample mont lat saung, bread and tapiocas soaked in sweet milk, and mont lone yepaw, round balls of sicky rice stuffed with jaggery and coconut.
Seasonal Festivals #2: May (Kason) – The watering of Bodhi Nyaung Tree
When: The month of Kason falls in line with the Gregorian month of May. On the full moon day, the watering of the sacred Bodhi Nyaung Tree takes place.
What: The full moon of Kason is the date on which Buddha was born, attained enlightenment and reached Nirvana. It is no wonder, then, that for Buddhists that this is the most religious of all of Myanmar’s full moon days. To honor Buddha on this auspicious day, locals flock to Bodhi trees- the tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment- and pour water. Throughout the country, Bodhi trees are dowsed in plain or scented water to ensure the trees longevity.
How to Enjoy:– Bodhi trees are found throughout the country, so you will not have trouble finding a celebration to join! In rural villages or neighborhoods, watch as long lines of people queue up to sprinkle water on the tree. Often traditional music is performed live and vendors sell snacks and sweets. Alternatively you can visit a pagoda, as many pagoda compounds house a Bodhi tree. Shwedagon Pagoda, Kabar Aye Pagoda and Mahamuni Pagoda (Mandalay) are packed with locals who come to make offerings at these auspicious sites.
Seasonal Festivals #3: June (Nayon) – The holding of Religious Examinations
When: Nayon is the 3rd month of the Myanmar calendar, usually coinciding with June. During Nayon, Buddhist monks and nuns take exams to test their knowledge of religious scripture.
What: The timing of the exams dates back to the second Innwa period (early 17th century). King Thalun wanted to promote the spread of Buddhism and thus began holding annual religious exams. These days the exams are state-sponsored and monks and nuns who pass the exams are greatly honored.
How to celebrate: Unlike most Myanmar holidays, there is little activity for tourists to observe. Most of the rituals of Nayon occur in religious colleges.
Seasonal Festivals #4: July (Waso) – The Robe Offering
When: One of the most sacred months in Myanmar, Waso falls around July at the start of the rainy season. On the full moon day, the robe offering ceremony occurs.
What: The three-month Buddhist lent period begins in Waso, the month in which the Buddha renounced all worldly pleasures. Thus monks use this period as a time of spiritual retreat and are forbidden to leave their monasteries for more than a night. To help them prepare for the lent, local Buddhists donate robes and other monastic needs on the Waso full moon day.
How to celebrate: Visit any monastery or pagoda on Waso full moon day and you will see donations of robes, alms bowls, slippers and more. It is also common, during this period, to gather flowers to present at pagodas. And, in general, Waso is a month when ordinary people practice stronger religious beliefs– few weddings take place during Waso and it is considered bad luck to move houses!
Seasonal Festivals #5: August (Wakhaung) – Offerings Month
When: The heavy monsoon period of July and August notes the Myanmar month of Wakhaung. This is a time for offering donations, not just on the full moon day but every day.
What: Due to heavy rains in Wakhaung, Buddhist monks were historically unable to go out on their morning alms collection to gather food. The Myanmar Kings would instead arrange a large religious festival to offer food and alms to the monks, helping them survive the monsoonal downpours. These days the tradition of donating during Wakhaung continues.
How to celebrate: Any day during Wakhaung – or any day of the year in fact! – you can make offerings to monks at pagodas in Myanmar. Steamed rice, fruits or packaged snacks are easy and useful donations to make. On the full moon day, many monasteries will place one alms bowl per monk in front of their building in which passerbys can drop offerings. They then draw lots to see who gets which bowl. The donors also have a chance to win, but are expected to re-donate their earnings!
Seasonal Festivals #6: September (Tawthalin) – Boat Rowing Competition Festival
When: The sixth month of the Myanmar calendar is Tawthalin. During this month Myanmar is nearest to the sun and there is little wind or rain.
What: With the lack of wind and rain, Myanmar’s waterways are generally calm and smooth during Tawthalin. Historically Myanmar’s kings took advantage of these favorable conditions to stage regattas and festivals on the lakes and rivers. These regattas were not just for entertainment but also to help improve the skills of the Royal Marine.
How to Celebrate: These days there are no regattas held in the month of Tawthalin. However Manuha Temple in Bagan holds a special festival around the full moon day. During this three-day event, monks from other monasteries gather at Manuha and local residents present offerings of pickled winter melon and rice cakes. Parades take place in the streets, depicting tales of the Buddha’s life by using paper mache animals and children decked out in colorful costumes.
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